Updated: February 13, 2015
Remember my XMBC tests on top of a Raspberry Pi board? Good. Last year, after purchasing my LG smart TV, I started playing with various low-cost appliances, trying to find the optimal hardware and software set for a home media center. In the end, I chose nothing, because the television itself is good enough for all my daily needs. Now, though, a couple of my friends have loaned me their stuff, including Apple TV, Chromecast and Odroid. Yay, I have friends! Just kidding. Imaginary friends.
We will begin with Chromecast. This is a tiny, low-cost HDMI dongle, designed to transform your regular TV into a smart, network-capable device. For only USD35, you get a media player that can stream all sorts of contents from your mobile devices and computers directly onto the large screen. Sounds cool, so let's see what gives.
There's very little to it. The dongle just needs to be powered by a micro-USB cable, and once it's on, it will boot into a setup screen, which tells you to visit the official page and download the software for managing the dongle. You need to do this on a supported mobile device, like a phone or tablet or a laptop of some kind.
At this point, you realize that you do need a second computing device in order to be able to setup and use Chromecast. A typical new smartphone probably costs around USD200 or higher, and laptops far more, so you might as well buy an expensive media center based on Windows, Ubuntu or Linux Mint, and just have it connected to the TV. Furthermore, if you already own a laptop with an HDMI output, hook in a cable, and that's it. You're all set. This brings me to the same problem I faced when playing with Raspberry Pi.
The total cost of ownership (TOC) for a proper media center goes beyond the seemingly ultra cheap cost of the streaming device. You might need a cable or a keyboard or an SD card, and when you combine all these, the price jumps up. With Chromecast, you need a second computer. There's no way you can work around this.
Chromecast, connected; in the background, Raspberry Pi is giving it stares.
Let's do a practical exercise. A dumb TV probably costs USD500 or so. A smart one something like USD600. For a price different of USD100, you cannot purchase both Chromecast, necessary accessories AND a second computing device. This is true for all other appliances of this sort. The closest thing to having a self-contained media unit was my test with the Rikomagic dongle, which more or less meets the bill, but not the desired quality and accessibility. Tiny, portable devices are awesome, and they do give you a freedom that static setups do not, but then, a lengthy HDMI cable will solve this. Furthermore, if your computer supports WiDi or such, even better.
Back to our test unit. Once you install the management software, which I did on my Samsung S4 phone, you then need to connect to the Chromecast open Wireless network and complete the setup. This is similar to what I've shown you with GoPro. Anyhow, follow the on screen instructions, let the appliance update itself, and you will soon be underway.
After the device has been setup, it will connect to your home Wireless network. Now, you use Chromecast the following way. Say, on your smartphone, you search for some content you'd like to watch. Supported applications will have a cast button, which you can use to enable screen mirroring with one click. That's about it. Simple, elegant.
In our example, the S4 phone comes with a bunch of applications that can use this feature, most notably Google's products, but also a range of associated programs, albeit with a very US centric approach. Hulu, Netflix and alike. Do they mean anything to you? If so, then you might as well enjoy yourself. Once you're done, take your smartphone or laptop away, and the TV plus its dongle will wait for your next use. Quite handy, even though you cannot work around the simple fact that you need multiple computing devices to use this dongle. Moreover, smart TV and HDMI cables do kind of make the need for dedicated streaming redundant.
You can also personalize your device, if you want. Overall, it looks simple and pleasing, even though the initial setup is typical too-many-clicks Android. But for nerds, this is a very handy way of managing their content, even though we always go back to the original budget and hardware problem. And if you don't like your configuration for some reason, you can always factory-reset the dongle very easily.
Chromecast looks a neat little gadget. It's cheap, and its rather simple to configure and use. And while it can transform a regular HDTV into an Internet-capable device, it does not work around the cost of having to own additional hardware to control it. The idea is that you'd own an Android phone of some kind or suchlike. But in the end, a well-designed smart TV is a much better and cheaper option, all considered.
USD35 does buy you connectivity, but you can achieve the same with an HDMI cable. Less fancy, but still good enough. Then, the integration is never quite as good as native capability on a smart TV. And much like Raspberry Pi, Chromecast is a very cool toy for nerds, but there's no technological and sensory revolution afoot. I still feel more inclined to use my TV's tools and apps rather than any external, peripheral dongle. All in all, not bad, but it won't make your media life cheaper, only a bit fancier. 7/10. And we're done.